Theresa May has rejected claims Brexit will result in a Westminster power grab, insisting it will mean more powers going to the devolved government in Edinburgh.
With one year to go until Britain formally departs from the European Union, the Prime Minister carried out a whistle-stop tour of the different parts of the United Kingdom, starting in Scotland.
Mrs May kicked off the listening tour with a visit to textile workers at a cashmere scarf factory in Ayrshire and underlined her commitment to “protect the integrity of the UK as a whole” amid an ongoing dispute with devolved administrations over new powers.
The Scottish and Welsh governments have both repeatedly claimed the UK Government’s Brexit proposals are a Westminster “power grab”, with powers returning from Brussels going to London instead of Edinburgh or Cardiff.
But as she restated her determination for the UK to leave, Mrs May rejected this notion.
She said: “Let’s be clear, there is no power grab, we are not taking back any of the powers that are currently devolved to the Scottish Government. Indeed the Scottish Government will be receiving more powers as a result of us leaving the European Union.
“What we’re discussing with the Scottish Government is how we can do that and ensure that we still maintain the ability for Scottish farmers, for Scottish businesses, to trade freely across the whole of the United Kingdom, just as we are negotiating the agreement to ensure they can continue to trade freely with the rest of the European Union.”
Speaking during a visit to Alex Begg weavers in Ayr, which produces luxury cashmere scarfs and accessories, the Prime Minister said: “We will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.”
However, talks with Scotland and Wales over the crucial EU Withdrawal Bill are deadlocked, with SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford claiming Mrs May herself is the “block” preventing an agreement.
Asked about this, the PM maintained her government was having “good discussions” with SNP ministers on the issue, adding: “We have put forward proposals as to how this issue can be resolved.”
Mrs May continued: “We’re clear that when powers come back to the United Kingdom, when we leave the European Union more powers will be devolved to the Scottish Government, but we want to ensure as we do that that people, businesses here in Scotland are able to continue to trade freely across the whole of the United Kingdom today, that’s what we’re talking to the Scottish Government about.
“There’s a whole list of something like 150 powers, the vast majority of them are actually powers that are going to be directly devolved to the Scottish Government.
“But we want to ensure that in simple things like selling food across the whole of the United Kingdom, that there aren’t any barriers put up to doing that as freely it can happen today.
“What we want to do is ensure that we devolve as we will more powers to Scotland but at the same time we maintain that internal market with the United Kingdom.”
The Conservative leader also hit back at claims from the Scottish Government and others that Brexit would damage the economy, saying there were “real opportunities for the United Kingdom when we leave the European Union”.
Mrs May said: “We are starting now the negotiations on what our trade arrangements, and arrangements overall in our economic partnership will be with the EU 27 once we leave.
“I believe we can negotiate a good agreement which is tariff free and as frictionless trade as possible, so we maintain those markets in the EU, but also that we open up markets around the rest of the world.
“Brexit provides us with opportunities, I want to see us coming together, the four nations across the United Kingdom we have a very a strong union, that is in our interests and it is in our interest to come together and really seize these opportunities for the future.”
The Prime Minister’s tour of the Alex Begg factory came as the UK government announced it would formally open talks with local partners for a new growth deal for Ayrshire.
Mrs May said: “It is my mission to deliver a Brexit deal that works for Scotland and the whole of the UK, and today I’ve been speaking to workers here in Ayr about what our departure from the EU means to them.
“I am determined that the Brexit we pursue is one that strengthens the bonds that unite us because I believe ours is the world’s most successful union. Scotland, with its diverse sectors ranging from wool, salmon and whisky production to world-leading universities, tech hubs and cultural institutions, is such a significant contributor to our United Kingdom.
“I want to see it prosper as we forge a new role for ourselves in the world.
“That’s why we’re continuing to back Scotland and I am pleased today to announce we are opening talks over a new Ayrshire Growth Deal that should significantly boost the local economy and opportunities for people here.”
Textile manufacturer Alex Begg has been established in Scotland since 1866 and creates quality woven scarves and throws for sale across the world, including key markets in Japan and the USA. READ MORE: Ex-Catalan minister Clara Ponsati: Spanish extradition ‘grotesque’
Mrs May’s bid to heal divisions caused by the 2016 EU referendum comes as polls suggest voters are still split down the middle over whether or not Brexit is the right thing to do.
“I am determined that as we leave the EU, and in the years ahead, we will strengthen the bonds that unite us, because ours is the world’s most successful union,” the Prime Minister said.
“The UK contains four proud and historic nations, but together we amount to so much more than the sum of our parts and our Union is an enormous force for good.”
Mrs May promised that “powers will return from Brussels to the parliaments and assemblies of the UK, closer to the people we all serve” as a result of Brexit. But she insisted that she has an “absolute responsibility to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole”.
“That means ensuring that no new barriers are created within our common domestic market and that the UK is able to meet its international obligations in the future. No Prime Minister could leave these things to chance, because they are absolutely crucial to our success as a country in the future.”
The Scottish Government published a report highlighting its priorities for Brexit talks, with membership of the EU single market at the top of the list.
Brexit minister Michael Russell said: “The hard Brexit favoured by the UK Government will depress economic growth, cut tax revenues and make it harder to attract the doctors, nurses and other health workers we need.
“That must change. Scotland’s voice must be heard and Scotland must stay in the single market.”
Later today, Mrs May will attend a parent and toddler group in Newcastle, have lunch with farmers near Belfast, and meet businesses in Barry, before finishing her tour by having tea with Polish citizens living in London.